My Struggle with Homework

The math classroom I knew from school followed a typical pattern.

  1. Review/Collect/Correct previous assignment.
  2. Teacher introduces new concepts/topic(s).
  3. Teacher walks through several example problems.
  4. Students are given an assignment.
  5. Repeat process.

Some math teachers are quicker with a joke, or friendlier, or more strict, but ultimately I think the majority of classes follow this pattern most of the time. When I first started teaching I struggled with how to handle steps 1 and 4. Here is the story of how I came to my solution.

My first year teaching at my current school I followed this pattern fairly religiously. At first I collected homework assignment and tried to check every problem from every student. I quickly learned this is a nightmare. Between students not showing work, poor penmanship skills, and trying to decipher multiple approaches, it is just way too time consuming.

I next tried an approach I picked up student teaching. I wouldn’t correct every assignment, but I would choose them randomly. It was still time consuming to correct, but at least that time consumption was limited. However, there was still a flaw with this system. One day when I went to collect a homework assignment to grade I had a student approach me. He didn’t have the assignment done. Every other assignment was completed, but something came up and he didn’t get that assignment done. I liked the kid, he normally was everything a teacher wants from a student, so I decided to give him a break. The problem was that more and more students asked for breaks, and every now and then I would get the rare student that skipped every assignment, but just happened to complete the one that was collected. I felt like this system was just to coincidental and happenstance to represent some sort of accurate measure of knowledge.

And it was still time consuming. So I adopted something I saw during student teaching, instead of collecting entire assignments, I started collecting just a few specific questions from homework assignments. But the outcome was still largely the same, it just felt like the grades were coincidental and happenstance.

There was also one large problem with which I had an issue. Correcting homework for accuracy led a lot of students to blatantly copy a handful of students. This defeated the purpose of homework to me. I firmly believe homework is there for students to reflect and practice the skills covered in class.

I decided to handle this problem by making homework a participatory grade. About two times a chapter I would collect homework from the students and just check to make sure they did something. I used this system for three years. I liked it because it allowed me to distance myself from student responsibility. If students took the time to understand the homework, great, and if they just filled in their notebooks to get the participation points that was fine with me too because they would just get low test grades. They didn’t put in the effort to learn the material, so they would suffer the low grades. I didn’t feel bad because I was essentially offering 30% of their grade for free by making homework participatory.

Then, at the end of one school year, about 20% of my students failed. It came down to their homework. They weren’t making the connection between doing quality work and success in school. I heard reason after reason, excuse after excuse, as to why the homework wasn’t done. Some of them were legitimate and some weren’t, but that wasn’t the point. They saw me as an authority figure and the homework I assigned was about following directions, not an educational opportunity. I had already struggled with the cycle of detention, and I do fall on the side of the debate believing they don’t achieve the desired result. I kept second guessing myself, thinking maybe I should have assigned more detentions. But those detentions just would have reinforced the cycle of obedience for those students.

If my goal is to breed compliance and obedience in students there are much more effective ways than math homework and detentions. Actually, the more I think about it, math homework and grades are about the dumbest way to teach concepts of compliance, obedience, and following directions. A paycheck and a job are much more effective for that.

Sending 20% of my class to summer school or back to Algebra I again wasn’t enough to make me change my ways though. I spent one year teaching summer school and have had several students go through the process. Though summer school itself is largely unresearched, my personal experience is that it serves largely as a prolonged detention to avoid repeating a class. By sending kids to summer school, the homework wasn’t about obeying me, as a detention would have been, but the homework was about obedience in the system.

And I was perfectly okay with this set up until the end of the next school year. I didn’t have nearly as many students fail this time. Actually only a couple, but one stood out in my mind. It was the last day of class and I had a student who was sitting at around 50 some percent. His homework, 30% of his overall grade, was negligibly above a zero. I had always told students it’s not when you learn something, but rather that you learn it. Well, here it was, the last day of school. Simply do some of the homework and the student could pass the class. I knew the kid had the math ability, I had watched him do math during class before, he just needed to get enough participation points to pass the class.

When he claimed he didn’t have enough time to get the work done, one of his classmates offered the use of her old notebook and worksheets to copy. He still refused because, as he stated, he didn’t care. Homework still wasn’t having the impact I wanted it to. I decided I needed to change something for next year. I couldn’t keep going having so much of a student’s grade represent obedience.

I needed to devise a way to grade so that those grades represented math ability and not classroom obedience. I needed to get students to realize the work they do with homework is what led to success, not watching me give notes. Most of all, I needed to break the cycle where students defend their behaviors with, “…but I didn’t think you’d care.” If all we ever teach is school is to do things because the teachers care we haven’t really educated anybody.

Impending Doom: Or Why I Hate August

I hate August. I think it is the worst month of the year. All I can ever think about in August is school, but school hasn’t started yet. I dread the coming onslaught of school; the planning, the paperwork, the grind.

Now I want to clarify something, I don’t hate school. I mean, I’ve made it my profession. I actually love the place, but I cannot deny that it becomes an all consuming monster for about ten months of the year. Of those ten months, about nine are consumed with the grind. Everyone knows the grind. It’s that systematic repetition that occurs throughout the school year. The grind is the day-to-day activity that makes a school recognizable as a school.

I get a respite from that mind numbing monster for about two months.

September, October, November, December, January, February, March, April, and May. It’s all about the grind. I like the grind. I thrive in the grind. To me the grind is the beautiful cycle that happens when teachers and students spend time in synchronized learning. I have never been a good planner, but I have been a good adapter. I work best when I can do something, students respond, and then I adapt. It is a process that has made me incredibly flexible. However, there is an element of spontaneity that comes with being highly adaptable. The spontaneity that happens in my class makes it nearly impossible to produce a detailed plan, especially when I do not know my students yet.

My flexibility and spontaneity is highly dependent upon having students with which to interact. Those students give me immediate feedback about my effectiveness as a teacher, more so than any written evaluation system ever could.

The whole process becomes mentally taxing. It pushes me to my cognitive and emotional limits during the year, and why school becomes so consuming.

And that’s why I hate August. I know the storm is coming, but there is nothing I can do about it. I know the grind of the school year is coming, but without my students there is nothing I can do to prepare in a manner that works best for me. So here I sit, consumed with school, the potential classes, the activities, reworking tests. Maybe I will even take the time to work on some of those things, but it will ultimately feel like wasted time without my students to tell me how I am doing. I am missing that integral part of my feedback cycle.

I have three weeks left of my break to enjoy, but the thought of schools looms and I don’t have my students, meaning those weeks are ….


I Made Poop Juice

The last time I took time to write and reflect I talked about why I need my summer break. I thought it might be time to discuss some of the details of what I have been doing, besides sleeping in.

This spring the rain seemed to fall at just the right time to produce a large crop of dandelions. Okay, so not a crop, but my lawn was full of them. I have always wanted to try dandelion wine and jelly and I don’t spray any fertilizer or herbicide, so I decided to take some time and try my hand this year. Picking them didn’t take too much time and I did get my two year old daughter to help a little. (The five year old was of no value in this endeavor, but he lacks anything resembling focus.) For the jelly I tediously cut the yellow petals away from green sepals, but for the wine I left them. I chose to do this because I had found a blog that said the sepals will provide tannin for the wine. The other recipes called for adding raisins or other fruit to get the tanins, but I wanted to keep the ingredients as few as possible. I ended up with about ten cups of blossoms for a gallon of wine, four pounds of sugar, and yeast.

After letting the blossoms steep for far too long, I found that the blossoms I was going to use for jelly had molded. It’s not that the process itself is so time consuming, it was that I was trying to do this during the school year. This unfortunately is nothing new for me, as I have written before how all consuming school is for me during the year. On the plus side, I had used the time blossom cutting to binge watch episodes of Star Trek Voyager, so at least it wasn’t a complete waste. Luckily the blossoms steeped for wine were salvageable.

I decided to boil them before adding the yeast. First, it would kill any bacteria, mold, or wild yeast involved. Secondly, it would make dissolving the sugar much easier. Before I began the boil I was prepared for the smell. I had read that steeping the blossoms would cause an odor that would resemble overcooked spinach, boiled grass, or even fresh compost. However, mine had that unique fragrance that occurs with stepping in fresh dog poop. It was bad. All the windows were open. I used airfreshner. My son came to the kitchen and accused me of making poop juice. Needless to say, my wife was not happy. She enjoys the fruits of my labor from making wine, but not the smell, especially this time.

Beer smells much more pleasant, almost like a bakery, but since I had children it is just difficult to find the unobstructed time that beer requires. To me, wine is much more forgiving.

Anyway, the poop juice I was cooking in the kitchen convinced me to make it a spice wine, adding whole cloves and allspice. Only time will tell if I will regret that. The first racking of the wine turned out well, giving me hope for the subsequent ones. (Coincidentally, my son who couldn’t focus to pick dandelions likes to help siphon during the racking process. I am worried that I will catch him siphoning gas in about 10 years.) I am really glad that I got that gallon made and had four gallons going from last year as I had a non-existence cherry harvest this year. Last year was a good year and I do have another batch of cherries sitting in the freezer ready to be squeezed and pressed for juice. I also found that freezing does seem to limit the cloudiness that comes from pectin from the cherries. I have begun bottling last year’s wine, but unfortunately now I have to let it age in the bottle for a couple months. I also am four empty bottles short.

While looking for my bottling equipment I stumbled upon six bottles of beer from the last time I made it, September of 2010. I am so glad I don’t have the pasteurization and filtering because living yeast acts as a great preservative. Sure the flavor matured, but it was still good.

Just after writing that I wonder if it is a good metaphor for much of what we do in life. We start something, throw some ingredients together, and just let it sit, only to find that it has become something wonderful. Even if it isn’t exactly what we expected.

Why I Need My Summer Break

I have been disappearing from the media circles for the past few weeks because it is currently summer. I am a teacher that will admit that summer, for me, is largely a vacation. Well, vacation probably isn’t the most apt word. Detox, that would be more accurate. I know there are teachers out their who spend their summers attending workshops and conferences, planning for next year, overhauling curriculum or classroom management plans, but I am not among them. I still think about school occasionally, but for the most part, I cut myself off for two and a half months.

I said my summer is detoxification time for me, and I mean that. The purpose of a detox is to cleanse the body of toxins and return it too normal. It’s not that teaching itself is toxic, but the summer is a way for me to cleanse myself of the baggage of the past school year.

For me teaching isn’t just a job, it is a passion that found a career. I have worked jobs in the past, Burger King, YMCA, Target, city street department, even hotel housekeeping. I really enjoyed my time at some (BK and Target) and absolutely hated one (housekeeping), but regardless of the specific occupation they all shared some key common traits. While they might have been physically demanding at times, they were rarely, if ever, mentally exhausting. There are some jobs that pay well, even ones that were entry level can become lucrative with proper advancement. And I understand the appeal of having a livelihood where work begins at 9:00 and ends at 5:00. I have known students for which getting a job is a goal.

But, when a job entails a passion, it just doesn’t pay the bills, it becomes all consuming. During the school year education almost never leaves my mind. There is a finite time that I physically teach in front of students, grade papers, write recommendation letters, read professional research, or plan activities, but the constant is that it education doesn’t leave my mind. I don’t just make a lesson plan, I make a plan that will impact 70 to 80 students. I need to be aware that students might be distracted with musical rehearsals, basketball practices, FFA field trips, or family strife. I don’t just grade papers, but I am acutely aware that GPAs have significant impacts on scholarships, that sometimes students form unhealthy relationships and obsessions with grades. Because I am fortunate to work in a school where I get to see the same students multiple years it makes impossible to proceed with any plan without thinking of individual student impacts first. It is with me over lunch, while watching football on Sunday, or while reading a book before bed.

Society loves to glorify the super human teachers, Ron Clark, Rafe Esquith, Erin Gruwell, or my personal hero Jaime Escalantie. However, teachers like these usually sacrifice anything resembling a hypothetical American Dream. During the school year I run the danger of turning into one of those teachers, willing to sacrifice my own family and interests to my profession.

Which is why I need my summer break. The summer allows me to be the passionate teacher during the school year, doing my token familial duties at home. Over the summer I get to be the passionate father, husband, gardener, Trekkie, financial analysts, or brewer while doing my token teacher duties. I am sure there are teachers out there who have found a way to achieve some sort of equilibrium throughout the entire year, but I have failed at that endeavor.