More on Homework

1 2 3A couple of years ago when I wrote a post for Grant Wiggins’s now defunct group blog The Faculty Room, I found myself in the midst of a tangle with Alfie Kohn about homework. After reading Shelly Blake-Plock’s post about homework today, I realized Kohn and I were talking about two different things: he was talking about busy work, worksheets, and the like, and I was really talking about preparing for class, although I couldn’t articulate what I meant at the time. Most of the homework my students have is class preparation: reading, answering questions we are going to discuss in class, anticipatory assignments, and the like. Wish I’d been able to explain that was what I meant at the time. However, I’m not sure it would have made a difference, at least not with that particular audience. I have found it interesting how many parents view a large amount of homework, even busy work, as a good thing—it proves their students are learning—and a lack of homework as a bad thing—students must not be learning anything. As in almost everything, it’s the quality, not the quantity, that counts.

Creative Commons License photo credit: D’Arcy Norman

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Summer Reading

This post started with a tweet from Gary Anderson about what his daughters were reading:

Gary Anderson tweet

Donalyn Miller shared how sad that tweet made her in a reply. I jumped in and later Paul Hankins, Karen LaBonte and Kim McCollum joined the conversation. A few others dipped in and out. The bottom line. What is the purpose of summer reading? How do we assess it? Should we even have required books or should we let students choose?

My school requires students read three books (four if you’re in AP). Of those three, one is a required book, one is a choice selected from a list of about ten books, and one is a faculty seminar book—students sign up the previous spring for the book they want to read. We have everything from The Eyre Affair to Hunger Games to Bringing Down the House. The students seem to like it, and there is sometimes a mad rush to sign up for first picks.

When students return, our first unit of study is the required book. I usually ask students to create a project for the choice book. The seminar discussion is the only assessment for the faculty book.

Basically, our conversation last night centered around whether we should assign summer reading. I admit I’m torn. I want students to read over the summer, and I want them to pick up books they want to read. I think we try to have some balance in the way we do it at Weber, but I admit some students still grumble. And what we are doing now is a big improvement over what we were doing when I started: three required books, some type of assessment over two of them without discussion (usually a test and an essay). The kids hated it.

I will go on record as saying the chapter summaries deal that a lot of schools do is just painful, and it kills books. My daughter has had to do that for summer reading, and I have watched it destroy any interest she had in the book. She had to do it with Speak, and not only did it frustrate her because she couldn’t tell what constituted a chapter in that book, but the directions given by the school were also no help. Once school started and the teachers recognized this, they backed off on the requirement, and my daughter, who had done a whole lot of work, just felt resentful. Last year, her teacher required these study guides for each book they read. It’s painful! And no choices at all!

I know we have some students who wouldn’t pick up a book all summer without a summer reading requirement. Truth be told, some of them don’t anyway. So what’s the solution? What do you think of summer reading? What should schools do?

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Digital Portfolios

Circled words, arrows, spiral notebookI am thinking of using digital portfolios this year. I have a wiki for my classes, and it would be easy for students to have a page on the wiki where they can collect their pieces and also pull in other items, like Glogs, images, videos, and audio. I really liked the idea of an interactive notebook, but I’m wondering if a digital portfolio wouldn’t be easier to grade.

Do you use digital portfolios? What tool do you use to create them? What suggestions would you have for implementation? Would it be better for students to create blogs? I don’t want to use too many different tools because I don’t want things to be confusing.

Creative Commons License photo credit: juliejordanscott

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Crowdsourcing Grades

5 November 2007Karen LaBonte tweeted a link to Cathy Davidson’s post How to Crowdsource Grading. It’s an interesting approach, and something I think could work well in college setting. My grad school program allows students to resubmit work based on feedback, and I have definitely taken advantage of this perk several times.

The trouble I have with it in high school or even younger is the idea of peers being responsible for evaluation. I do peer editing in my classes all the time, but students are not graded on it (aside from simply a check for doing it). I think students should have some choices and some say about their work, but I’m not sure they’re always the best judges (at least high school and younger) of what to assess and how to assess it, so I wouldn’t put the grades in the hands of my own students.

I hate grades. I would do away with them if I could, but my school has them, so the fairest thing I can do is give students various types of assessments that measure what they have learned against my goals for their learning. My feelings about grades are complicated because as a student, I stress out about them. I actually get nervous when I check my grades online. I would do all the work my instructors asked me to do even without grades, and I think I’d be happier just learning rather than stressing about my grades (which I do even though they are good). On the other hand, I know that I am definitely not normal. Would the students do the work if they weren’t graded on it? Depends. I think you can structure an learning experience for students that isn’t graded and still get most students to buy in. The ones that don’t are usually the ones that don’t even with grades.

We recently had a lot of discussions about summer reading with other members of our department and our media specialist. Students must read three (four for AP) books over the summer. One (two for AP) is required. One is chosen from a list. The last is selected from among books the faculty members have chosen to sponsor. Book sponsors lead a discussion about their choices with the students who signed up for their book. Essentially, a fear was expressed that should we not quiz or otherwise formally assess students’ faculty selections aside from the discussion, the students would not read the book. I liked my department chair’s unorthodox response: so they miss a great learning experience. Too bad for them. The person who expressed the fear about students not reading wasn’t satisfied with this response. I added in, “Can’t they just read a book for fun?” It was very clear that this person was worried students would not do anything if a grade was not tied to it.

With college students, you’re working with adults, and while I’m not sure I’d want my grades in the hands of my peers, I could see some type of agreement about what constitutes “A” work being made among students. In my Multimedia Authoring course, one of my peers gave me really poor marks on my project (a difference of at least 9 points out of 50 when compared to the other two evaluators). I think she did it out of spite because when I evaluated her project, I pointed out that nothing in her PowerPoint worked. Wouldn’t you want to know that before it was graded? Or would you be petty because it was pointed out? I digress, but the point is that my instructor evaluated us on our evaluations of others. He docked me a percentage of a point because I gave a criticism in my comments in one area of the rubric, but still gave full points. His reasoning—if there was a problem, it shouldn’t have received full points. Probably true, but he was also a tough (some would say nit-picky) grader. I wouldn’t say nit-picky because I learned a lot from his class, his feedback, and his tough grading. And yes, I have wondered what kind of feedback my peer received for her evaluation of me.

A side note: I am receiving no grades for the major project I’m creating this semester. I’ve worked harder on it than anything else I’ve done. The fact that it won’t be graded hasn’t lessened my motivation. It has freed it. I don’t have to fret about what I might earn on it, so I can just do my best and create a project that I’m proud of.

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Quick Assessments

Happy Students by Tom WoodwardQuick formative assessments will tell you if your students understand the lesson (or if they were paying attention). They’re also a great way for teachers to check on the learning of all students, not just those who either volunteered or were called on to contribute.

I Noticed…

One quick formative assessment that I learned at the Folger Shakespeare Library’s Teaching Shakespeare Institute is called “I Noticed…” Mike LoMonico modeled it for us as a closing activity before breaking for lunch or ending the day. I have used it successfully in my own class since.

How to Do It

We are going to go around the room. (Explain how—by rows, in a circle, randomly called on.) When it is your turn, you need to share one thing you noticed about class today. I will start. I noticed how Angela interpreted the character really well when we read that section aloud. (Then indicate student to start. Help them keep going if they get lost. Make everyone contributes something.)

Index Card Check-In

There are variations on this one, and you’ve probably heard of it before, but just in case you haven’t, the index card check-in is a great way to see where your students are and to guide your instruction.

How to Do It

Give each student an index card. Tell them to write down two observations or connections they made about class and one question they have. Of course, you can change this up and alter the requirements. The cards are the “ticket out the door” and must be collected before students leave. Read over the cards and incorporate discussion of particularly interesting connections or statements and student questions into the next lesson.

Finger Check

This one is another oldie, but I hadn’t heard of it until a few years ago perhaps because I think it works better for subject matter in which there are definite answers (for example: is this a mixture or a solution?).

How to Do It

Tell students the key for the answers. For example, one finger might be mixture and two fingers might be solution. When you ask a question, have the students hold up their fingers to respond. Look out for incorrect answers or students who hesitate before holding up their answers and look around to see what the other students think. They are having trouble with the material.

Journaling

I know English teachers use journaling a lot, but it can be great way to close class for any subject.

How to Do It

Give students a topic related to the lesson and anywhere from 3-10 minutes (depending on complexity and level) to write a response. Collect responses. You can use these responses to begin the next class, noting particularly good insights.

If you have good ideas for quick formative assessments, please share them in the comments.

Creative Commons License photo credit:  bionicteaching

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Frankenstein

One thing I share with my department chair is a geeky love of planning assignments. I should probably have been grading papers today, but instead I finished my Frankenstein unit and created a performance task based on an out-of-date (and apparently no longer used/updated) WebQuest. I did think the ideas were sound, but I also thought that some of the websites in the WebQuest were somewhat biased, and I wanted to present a bit more of a neutral view. I think it’s a solid assignment, however, and I just wanted to tweak it.

You can view my UbD unit for Frankenstein here. The WebQuest, with some major overhaul, is located here.

Update, 12/29/09: I have created a Google Earth tour based on the travels of Robert Walton and Victor Frankenstein that you can download. I am submitting it to Google Lit. Trips and will let you know if they decide to publish it as well.

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UbD Educators Wiki

I recently posed a question for discussion on the UbD Educators wiki. At this point, the wiki has over 100 members, and one would think it would be more active, but to get down to brass tacks, I’m the most active member of the wiki. The wiki is not closed to lurkers, so if all you wanted to do was get ideas for teaching, you wouldn’t need to join. Lurkers cannot edit pages or join discussions, however. I am interested to know what can be done to make the wiki more of a true repository of UbD units and discussion. I use the wiki when I am planning a new major unit, and I have found the two templates, the UbD Filter and the UbD Unit, to be helpful when planning units. The feedback at the start was very good, but member involvement has declined somewhat.

I spent some time today tagging pages in the hopes that the information might be easier to find. As always, I encourage members to join up and contribute. We have no math, science, fine arts, foreign language, physical education, or special education units, and we have only one (one!!!) technology education unit and one social studies unit. I suspect a lot of members teach these subjects, and often when people join up, they tell me they are doing so because their school or district is encouraging or requiring UbD; therefore, we ought to have more units in those areas, I should think.

UbD is something I strongly believe in. I have seen it bring more transfer, coherence, and, well, understanding to my own teaching. Planning using UbD guidelines makes me think about all aspects of what I teach and helps me plan more authentic lessons. One compliment I received from a student is that I always “try to make [learning] relevant to our lives.” Creating more authentic audiences for writing tasks has been a goal of mine this year, too, and planning using UbD has helped. I truly feel that this wiki could be an excellent tool, but I admit that right now I feel a bit like I’m in an echo chamber over there.

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Dissecting Trolls

Most readers of this blog probably know that in Internet parlance, a troll is a person, usually partly or completely anonymous, who posts off-topic and usually really vicious or mean comments. Karl Fisch tweeted yesterday about the depressing nature of the comments left on a recent Huffington Post article about his influential “Did You Know?” video. I responded that I created a writing assignment based on some poor argumentation I found in YouTube.

I was looking for videos to share with my Hero with a Thousand Faces course students, and the first video I came across was one in which Tolkien discusses how he began writing The Hobbit. Essentially, a poor argument (on both sides) has developed in the comments on that video that Star Wars is a ripoff of Tolkien’s work. I read through most of them, and while I don’t advocate actually responding to comments of this sort, I did find that the argument on both sides was essentially composed of a series of ad hominem attacks. Neither side offered any support for their argument, and I kept reading to see if someone—anyone—would mention that the similarities that exist can be attributed to the fact that both stories involve heroic journeys and can be analyzed using Joseph Campbell’s theories regarding the monomyth. No one said any such thing. My own students have already studied Star Wars. They are currently reading The Hobbit. I knew that any one of them could explain the similarities between the stories based on solid evidence, which is something the commenters on YouTube either can’t or won’t do.

I created a writing assignment based on this idea, and I have full confidence that my students will be able to argue their points better than Internet trolls, but I cautioned them not to actually try it. Real Internet trolls don’t listen to reason. Or much of anything really.

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Interactive Notebooks: Professional Development Goal

My school has an interesting professional development program. The first year of the program involves exploration of a topic, and choices include educational research and reflection, general teaching practices, and career and leadership development. During the second year of the program, we can either 1) write one or two goals based on Charlotte Danielson’s domains as described in Enhancing Professional Practice: A Framework for Teaching or 2) work on a project that relates directly to an improvement in instruction of our students. In year three, the focus is on teacher observation and evaluation based on Danielson’s Framework and especially focused on instruction (Domain 3).

I decided that my goal would be to increase students’ critical thinking and engagement through Interactive Notebooks. It seemed a worthy goal because I am already using the notebooks, and now I will be collecting data and analyzing their effectiveness. I have collected all my students’ notebooks for the first time over the last couple of weeks with the following observations:

  • My students in British Literature and Composition (juniors) are really getting the idea behind the notebooks. They are naturally a pretty organized group, and they remind me if I haven’t told them that I need to indicate which section items go in and whether the assignments should be on the left or right. Thus, I was pleased with what I saw when I examined their notebooks. I still need to remind students about fleshing out the left with their own ideas.
  • My ninth grade students had major confusion about the notebooks. They are not as naturally organized as my juniors, so it stands to reason they will need more help, and if I am honest with myself, I haven’t given them all the help I think they need after looking at their first notebook checks as a baseline. I would like them to make more connections, but they need more help. I am also not giving them enough assigned left-hand side work.
  • My seniors seem to understand what to do, but many of them didn’t do it. I don’t think I have buy-in with that group because they have all, except for one student, had my class before, and they liked the notebook checks I used to do. I think they liked them because it did involve a little bit less work for them. They didn’t need to make the left-hand side connections. I had assigned a reading journal for the left-hand side for this time, and only a few students completed it. I think they just weren’t reading. It’s an elective class, and I hate to go the reading quiz route, but I may have to. Seniors are kind of a different animal in terms of engagement, and I suppose I can expect they won’t necessarily be invested in trying something new.

What I need to do to improve is give my ninth graders more opportunities for connection and reflection on the left and work with my elective students to convince them of the value of the notebooks. I could supply models from my juniors so that they could see the notebooks at work. Models actually wouldn’t hurt my ninth graders either. Even with my juniors, who are doing well, I can improve by suggesting ideas and opportunities so that the notebooks, particularly the left-hand side, are on their minds as a natural part of learning.

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