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.

How Do I Get an “A” in Your Class?… Or How Failing Made Me a Better Teacher

It’s happened again. I have been accused of not teaching, by a student. It’s not that this particular student blatantly raised a voice during class and shouted, “You never teach us anything,” but it started with a couple of innocent statements.

“I think it would be better if you gave us notes.”

“Can you go over an example of an ‘A’ questions?”

“How do I get an ‘A’ in your class?”

The problem I have with all of these statements, no matter what the circumstances are surrounding them, is that they come from a mindset that I believe has infected education on far too many levels. Students come into my class operating on a training, recall, example laden mentality. The expectation from these students is that I will present the material as it will appear on assessments, and it is their responsibility to memorize the material presented, and the material will be identical. There is a subset of students, parents, administrators, and even the general public, that believe this is what education should be.

How does that happen? How did we get to a place in society where it is thought that education is the same as memorizing tasks?

Schools, both high schools and colleges, are under tremendous pressure to ensure students graduate. Graduation rates affect funding levels for schools. The higher percentage of students that pass the more money a school receives, or is less likely to lose.  If the graduation rate falls at my school, it will be endanger of losing funding. In addition, standards for graduation keep increasing, creating a perfect milieu for grade inflation.

Ahhh….grade inflation. That concept is not new. It has been the bane of education since the existence of grades. As long as there has been no standard definition of an “A” people have blamed others for inflating grades. But the idea of an inflated grade wouldn’t exist without someone finding out that the student who had that inflated “A” really wasn’t that smart. For that, we can blame employers, admissions departments, scholarships, and even teachers.

When people in authority use generic measurements, a GPA or transcript for example, as a gauge of intelligence it invites sympathetic teachers to inflate grades. We are to the point in society that if I were to truly hold a student accountable for mastery of a concept such as parabolic functions, it could represent that student’s ability to obtain a low skill job in the service industry. To me, that represents my incentive to make my class as easy as possible to pass, because I don’t want to be the person who tries to say with a straight face, “I’m sorry, but you can’t have a job bagging groceries because you cannot complete the square to find the vertex of a quadratic function in standard form.” (This is not meant to be an insult to grocery baggers of which I really appreciate the good ones. The statement was  there to try and point out the futility of connecting arbitrary education with work preparedness.) Every employer that has said a job applicant has had to have a high school diploma, without a thought as to what that student was subjected to learning, using a high school diploma as a rudimentary haphazard sorting device, causes an increase of grade inflation. It is because employers like that exist that my class is easy to pass.

But it’s not just low skill service jobs that use GPAs and transcripts as lazy sorting devices. Colleges and scholarships do so as well. Maybe they look beyond just obtaining a high school diploma and focus on certain classes and certain grades, but the concept is the same. When I have a student who is very capable of being a nurse, but they are encouraged to take Pre-Calculus because that is what is required of the college’s nursing program, I am incentivezed to make getting a decent grade relatively easy. I wonder how many doctors, not to mention nurses, could tell me what a conic section is, let alone describe the relationship of the sum and difference between foci that generates the different conic sections. The college won’t really care what she knows in regards to Pre-Calculus, only that the class shows up on her transcript with a certain grade by it.  As long as I have her prepared to take her one math class in college from the professor who is under pressure to make sure she passes, I feel like I have done my job. These students know the game of gatekeeping that is goes on at the different levels of education. It is why I try to make it relatively easy to get a “B” in my class. It might take dedication and work, but it is achievable by nearly all students who have a mediocre grasp of concepts learned in previous classes.

I make sure that “B” is achievable because anything less than a “B” must be justified. No one wants their child be the student that struggles, but I cannot assign a grade below a “B” without being able to document the behavior the student demonstrated that led to the low grade. I have to document how I tried to correct those behaviors. I have document all the interventions I tried for the student. I have never, NEVER, been asked to justify why a student has an “A.” By making a “B” relatively easy, I can defend my low grades with simple work ethic defenses and lack of prerequisite knowledge statements. (Those are legitimate issues, it just makes the administration of my class easier to have most students around a “B”.)

So far I have mentioned the money involved in education through the application of graduation rates  impacting a schools’ funding. I have also discussed the societal pressures to obtain a high school diploma or take certain class only for the label, without any regard to the content of those classes. These lead me, and probably other teachers, to ultimately reduce the rigor of their classes.

However, there is one other influence that shapes education into memorization. In my education classes about assessment in college we covered the concept of test validity. We were taught that for a test to be valid the material on the test must be explicitly taught. If the test material is not explicitly taught then the test is invalid. This was then interpreted as meaning teach what is on the test, though never said in that manner.  In class we provide students with every example they might see, with all the information that might be around, we provide study guides and review sheets, we play review games, and then we give a test. When students do well we congratulate ourselves and think our students are all above average. When they do poorly we point out all the places in the study guides or homework examples where the information was located. Even though we so often trumpet the mantra of, “don’t teach to the test,” we don’t listen to ourselves.

This is what my education was. When I entered college back in the fall of 2001, I had every indication that I should be successful. I had tested into the gifted program in elementary, I was accelerated in math in junior high, I had never placed below the 93rd percentile on any standardized test (Iowa Basics, ASVAB, PSAT, ACT), I took AP classes in high school for weighted grades and finished with above a 4.0 GPA. I finished my freshman year of college with nearly a 4.0 GPA, with a little struggle in the spring semester that I simply attributed to college being more difficult.

My sophomore year it all fell apart. I was failing classes. I dropped classes in a desperate attempt to salvage my grades in the remaining classes. I let the funk infect every aspect of my life. It ruined friendships and jobs. To this day I am not comfortable talking about my failure. Sure, I can mention it happened, but mentioning that failing happened is very different that coming to grips with the reality that my self-identity was a complete and utter lie. I visited depths of personal hell that I wouldn’t wish upon anyone. (Here is a link that describes it better than I can.)

I can remember sitting in classes, trying to take a test, and feeling like it was gibberish on the page in front of me. It’s the first time I can ever recall thinking, “He never taught this!”

Slowly, I started to develop the work ethic necessary to pass during the second semester of my sophomore year, but it was still an emotional period of my life. I still remember one of my moments of clarity during my embitterment. I went to pick up a quiz from our Quantitative Analysis professor. I had worked so hard for this quiz, I had put in so much effort trying to understand the examples and making sure the extra homework problems were correct and figuring out ways to evaluate them myself, but I still lacked confidence and was nervous. I got the quiz back and was ecstatic that it was a good grade. As I examined the work, I noticed one of the problems that I got correct was one that he had never covered in class. I let out a very loud, audible, “I got this right and he never even taught us this!” in front of his office door.

That’s the moment I considered a turning point in my college education. (I managed to finish with a 3.43 GPA after a semester on academic probation.) It’s when I realized the amount of work authentic learning requires. But it’s not the quantity of work learning takes, but the quality of the work that leads to success. I learned that I needed to generalize better.

When I was in high school I bore the label of being one of the smart students. Now, with the benefit of hindsight, I realize that it wasn’t that my GPA was any higher than my peers, it was that I had to work less than them to achieve it. My education amounted to me watching my teacher do some examples, easily memorizing them, and regurgitating them on a test. I was doing an academic binge and purge. Eventually it caught up to me. I never learned how to effectively learn, all I had ever done was memorized and thought I was a good learner. I even identified myself as a quick learner on job application when I should have been saying, “I am a really good at memorizing repetitive tasks, so I will be the perfect employee for Burger King.” Since I have become a teacher I have started to notice that several of my students share that mindset.

Unfortunately I feel and obligation to ensure that my students don’t feel that false sense of security. I don’t want a student to go through what I did. I can’t live with the thought of students who would leave my class thinking it would be easy, then fail their next math class. And that motivation, probably one of the earliest I ever adopted, has shaped my class in two distinct ways.

The first way my failure impacted my classes is that I have jumped on the teach less bandwagon. Teach less, be less helpful, productive struggle, productive stupidity, there are a plethora of blog posts, editorials, and even a few journal articles about the concept. Basically, it boils down to the idea that if I teach every possible example I have done all the thinking for my students. This is bad because then students never learn to think for themselves. From a progressive standpoint, I would say my students are discovering, and from a traditionalist view I probably have just gotten good scaffolding. But the point is the same, I lead kids, I prompt kids, but I never explain explicitly every step.

The second way that my failure impacted my class is on my assessments. Several of my students who are used to getting an “A” in class are undergoing a period of adjustment. They have trouble because they were me in high school, smart, but relying on the teachers to do all the thinking for them. I have modified my assessments so that questions that will warrant an “A” are never explicitly covered in class. I have covered concepts, but not specific examples. I am trying to use the training aspects of school to train my students to be prepared to answer unfamiliar questions.  I was working with a student after school last year on a quiz that she missed and the story almost perfectly illustrates the thinking that I am trying to avoid.

She was having trouble on the “A” question. “I don’t know what to do!”

I responded by saying, “Tell me what you’re thinking.”

“I’ve read the problem and it doesn’t look like any of the examples we’ve done in class. I tried to match the work to the problem like______(I forgot the one she mentioned, but it was about radians), but it doesn’t make any sense”

For years I had been trying to describe the point of not covering “A” questions in class, and now it made perfect sense. She read the problem on a surface level and scanned her memory for similar problems. She really didn’t comprehend that she needed to dissect the problem and pick out the concepts she knew and then apply those concepts to an unfamiliar question.

As I prompted her through the idea asking, “Do you know what this means?” over and over again, it finally seemed to click. She finally realized that she knew everything that was there.

I can’t prepare my students for every conceivable test question that might appear on an end of course exam, ACT, SAT, or whatever. So I purposely under prepare my students for my tests. When they grasp being under prepared, then they are really prepared for the tests they will have to take when I’m not around. When they embrace the mindset that comes with being under prepared, they will succeed in my class.

That’s how you get an “A” in my classroom.

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 ….

 

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.

Why I don’t do homework

I hate homework. For the few people that know me, I feel like I have at least an average vocabulary, I would pretend that it is above average. And I cannot stress the importance of the choice of words. I hate homework. I am not annoyed with homework, I am not repulsed by homework, I am not disgusted with homework. I hate homework. There are two major misconceptions about homework that I would like to attack to explain why I hate homework.

But first a clarification, homework can have a purpose. Readings that provide students with information that will be necessary for participation in a class discussion. Using flashcards to memorize medical terminology prefixes and suffixes, those are good uses of homework. So why do I have a problem with homework? Here’s why.

Homework reinforces the concepts covered in class.

If I ignore whether an assignment is graded based upon completion or accuracy, I see eight possible outcomes from the homework assignment. If a homework assignment is to achieve its maximum benefit it needs to be in a place where a student has mastered the material enough to complete the task, but still has to expend intellectual effort. The goal for this homework is that the student is moving recently learned information to become part of a long-term schema. Once in schema, the material becomes intertwined with prior knowledge and can be used to interpret and understand even more concepts.

Publication1

However, very few homework assignments covered in class actually fall into this sweet spot. If all outcomes on my flowchart have equal probability (which is a big assumption) only one out of eight homework assignments will have the desired result. Only one out of eight outcomes will reward intellectual effort positively. Seven of the eight will reward aspects of school that do not help us learn.  Imagine homework for a student, with the student thinking, “that was dumb, that was dumb, that was dumb, that was dumb, that was dumb, that was cool, that was dumb, that dumb.” Now repeat that over and over and over for twelve years. Is it surprising that so many of our high school students have a negative view of the purpose of school?

Students need something to work on at home.

Often I will get a question from a parent the first time we meet. Usually it goes something like, “What should my child be working on at home?” Deep down I really want to tell the parent that their children should be working on whatever interests them. In reality though, I get a sense that work is associated with learning. If a large math assignment is completed, much learning has occurred. Big assignment equals big smarts (insert caveman imagery here).

But work is just that and nothing more, work. A better option for parents who are concerned with their children would be to simply have them demonstrate what they are learning in class. What follows might come in fits and bursts, with some information being comprehensible and mastered, while some of it might lack clarity, but that is the nature of learning. A student working doesn’t necessarily mean that the student is learning. Learning takes work, but not all work is learning.

So what’s the solution?

I wish there were an easy answer, but there isn’t. Research is mixed, even personal experience is mixed. So what I have chosen to do is have my students do as much work in front of me as possible. At least that way I know what they can and cannot do. I will list a practice assignment for students to work on if they desire, but it is optional. It is optional precisely because the student would need to see the benefit of homework, how homework’s purpose shouldn’t be grades, but rather homework should exist to benefit understanding and mastery. Not many take advantage of this opportunity, but a few have.

I hope more will.