Does Homework Always=Learning?

This post is in response to this week’s question from the 2014 Teacher Leadership Challenge

hwThis summer, I experienced first hand a small taste of what some of my students experience on a nightly basis from their classes. I took a graduate class from 8am-4pm for six days. Each night, after returning from the eight hour class, I had on average three hours of homework. The first night I returned home, I was exhausted. My brain was spent, but I had to push through the task…and it was one of my least favorite memories of the summer. Luckily for me, I only endured this for six nights. High school students experience this often and for their entire high school career.

The idea of homework is definitely controversial. Some teachers feel they must give it in order to have something to grade or feel that students need the practice outside of school. Some teachers only grade for completion, but don’ t even check the homework. Parents become angry when their students are not bringing homework home, as they feel their student needs the homework.  So where do we draw the line?

In my opinion, the amount and type of homework many students receive on a nightly basis is outrageous. We expect students to be in school for seven hours a day, and then head home to work on an additional two to three hours of homework a night. And for the struggling learner, that number can increase two fold.  My biggest complain with homework comes from the excessive amount of “practice” of a particular skill and the type of material covered. When a student takes home homework, the material should be something they know how to do. Students should not be teaching themselves the material. At that point, the “practice” is simply “self-teaching” or lack thereof of the material.

For the student that struggles with the homework or is more advanced in the skill, homework many times=failure. For the struggling student, when they don’t complete the homework, they earn a 0 for the assignment. And the determinant of zeros on a student’s grade is so great. For the student who is more advanced, and does need this “practice, ” they too are impacted grade wise like the struggling learner. Only they often have the stronger test taking ability, and can do well enough on tests to where they can still pass.

Homework does not always=learning. And in fact, the time during which students are in the classroom working with and learning from their teacher and class mates is much more a time of learning then doing homework to get the grade. When homework goes home, how are we sure the student is actually doing their own work? What if no one is home to assist with the homework or doesn’t have the skill themselves to help the student?  What if the student doesn’t get the homework? How are we setting students up for success when they experience one or more of these situations?

As Allen Iverson said repeatedly at a press conference, “We are talking about practice?….we aren’t talking about the game?” We need to be more focused on how students learn the material and can apply what they learn, and not be so hung up on the need for repetitive “practice” (homework.) Let’s focus on the game for students, recognizing what they know and have learned and how they can apply this information.


From Paper to Digital Notebooks: Evernote!


Last year in the Academic Center, each student was given a composition book for notes and activities. They worked well, but the need to find storage for each one was cumbersome, and students were often misplacing them. So, as we are pushing to be a dedicated BYOD (Bring Your Own Device Classroom), we are starting this week replacing our black and white notebooks with Evernote!

The Plan

Each student will create an Evernote account on their mobile device or classroom computer via the web. Students will create a notebook to be solely dedicated to our class, Learning Strategies. Within the notebook, each note will be for a different topic that we cover in class. While we will still occasionally use worksheets for group activities, we will do the majority of our work in Evernote.

Why Evernote

Students will have access to their accounts from anywhere and every device, whether it is web-based or through the Evernote app. This will eleviate the issue of misplacing notebooks. Students will learn to imbed pictures in their notes, such as pictures they take from activities they do, upload documents they have that relate to the topic, as well as set due dates through Evernote’s newer feature of reminders. An email or app popup is sent to the person when a due date is approaching.

Generalization of  Evernote

As with every new idea or concept we teach our students, our goal is to move students to carrying over their knowledge to their other classes. Students will become proficient with using Evernote and can use it to take notes in their other classes, stay organized and share their notebooks with others. Last year, many students would take pictures of teacher whiteboards as they were heading out of class. This information was often important to the student, and they might not have had a chance to write it down. Now these once miscellaneous pictures could be embedded into a note that correlated with the information that student have from the picture into a note.

A great post, done by a fellow educator, Mr. Abud, shows how he uses notebooks for Chemistry to track student progress on lab reports. Student teams create notebooks, share them with him, and upload steps to labs along with pictures and documents. Check it our here!

Additionally, I can see Evernote accounts being shared by paraprofessionals and co-teachers with support teachers, such as myself, to quickly share information being taught in the classes in which they are supporting. This would eliminate the need to constantly be walking down the information to our program or emailing it. Great option for everyone involved!

Interested in learning more about Evernote?

Check out this Haiku Deck   

Using To-Do Lists in Evernote



Building Relationships in the Classroom: What To Do in The First Weeks and Beyond!


In a previous post by Juile on Relationship Building in the Classroom, we were introduced to the ideas of how important this relationship building can be with students.

You agree with the concept, but are wondering what are some specific ways to build relationships with students as well as student to student relationships.  Here are some which we plan to use in the first few weeks of school, a KEY time to connect with students to build year long positive relationships.

1. Marshmallow Challenge: Simply put, students are randomly placed into groups with a few simple materials: one marshmallow, string, scotch tape and uncooked spaghetti noodles. Students work on team building as they try to construct the tallest free standing structure. See here for more info!

2. Where do I belong? Each student is given a card with a word. Four words fit in each category to make groups. Some words can fit into more than one category, so it really gets the kids thinking. After trying this out, have students find one thing in common outside of the cards (think grade, age, favorite hobby etc) that they all share. See here for more info!

3. Mingle, Mingle. Create get to know you activities that ask students to find another student in the room that matches a statement. Have teachers be a part of the list as well.

4. The Weekend Update: On Mondays, spend 3-4 minutes sharing what happened over your weekend and allow students to share too. We remind students to keep in school appropriate. Great way to connect students as well as continue to prove that teachers have lives too!

5. Student surveys: Give students the chance to share their strengths, weaknesses, goals and fears for the year on a quick student survey. We also add what types of rewards students like.

Building relationships with students are the single best way to enrich your classroom environment for students and teachers. What things do you use in your classroom?

Students Need Strategies, Not Just Graduation

try1When I first tell people that I am a resource teacher and teach a class called learning strategies, I sometimes get the famous comment, “Oh, is your class really a homework hour?” “Is your main focus to help the kids graduate? ” My responses are no to the first and partially to the second.

Our program does support students in their academic classes, but our first and foremost goal is to teach the strategies for success, not just support them to get a diploma.

We are doing a disservice to students, especially struggling learners, if our focus in high school is just to help them graduate. Sure, the content is very important, but if students don’t have strategies to implement to tackle new content, they will struggle immensely as the content requires higher orders of thinking beyond basic understanding.

I have had the privilege of working with many amazing students as a teacher. One particular student comes to mind as I think about what a huge impact strategies have on student success. Student A, was diagnosed with dyslexia as well as a learning disability in the areas of reading comprehension and math problem solving. But through the use of exposure to varying strategies, and finding which ones worked best for her, she moved out of resource English and Math classes as she progressed through high school.  She found she learned best through color coding, reviewing material over and over and staying extremely organized in order to be successful as well as integrating technology supports. This August, she began her second year of college and has made the dean’s list during her freshman year. Through hard work and determination, she has taken what she learned in high school and has applied it to her entire life. Had we only helped her muddle through strictly the content of high school material, she would have been at a huge disadvantage once she left our doors.

Life is about learning different strategies, finding which one(s) work best for you, and implementing them. Let’s make this year about preparing our students for the challenges they face beyond strictly content.

Filling Your Strategy Toolbox


Editors Note: This post is written by guest author Aubrey Trimble. The views expressed are her own. 

I have been very fortunate in my role as a Learning Consultant to see some awesome teaching and great classroom strategies that help reach our at-risk and special education students. I would like to share a few that I have found to be very successful in the general education classroom.

Summarizing Technique

In high school, we assume our students understand how to summarize a text, whether a fictional or non-fictional text. When I was teaching in the classroom I found a lot of the students understood what summarizing was, but not exactly how to do it; inevitably, the student would end up re-telling the story.

  • Have students read a text. Before the students read the text, ask the students to write down five to ten (depending on how long the text may be) words that are important to understanding the text.
  • Once all the students have finished, ask the student to write a summary that cannot be any longer than 4-5 sentences and must include all of the words they had previously identified as important.

This strategy allows the student to identify what is important while reading the text and stops the student from re-telling the story because they have to prioritize what are the most important ideas to include.

Teacher/Student Made Book Marks
This is a great strategy for teachers who perhaps are reading a novel that may have a lot of characters, changes in setting, etc. or for a science text that may have vocabulary that will be new to the students. The book mark allows for a “hint sheet” to the important pieces of the text so that the student has access to this information, readily and easily.

  • For a chapter book, create a book mark that outlines the important literary pieces of the text the students must understand in order to understand the book. The book mark can be filled previously before reading or the student can fill it in as they read.
  • For vocabulary purposes, create a book mark with the new vocabulary words on it where, again, they can be filled in previously or the student can fill it out as they go along.
  • For due dates in a chapter book, you can create a book mark with due dates for when chapters need to be read by.

This strategy is helpful because it is a tool all students can use and will have the important pieces of information the students may need to understand the concepts of the text or the text itself in a fun, easy to use book mark.

Test Corrections: What Does the Student Really Know?

This strategy is great because it addresses the information the student does not know so the student can address these issues before  moving forward without gaps in the understanding and potentially getting further behind.

Once the test has been corrected by the teacher, hand the test back out to the student. Have the students identify what questions they did wrong. You can:

  1. Create a t-chart and have the student look for patterns to the questions done incorrectly. For example, in math, are they missing a key step in each problem or on an English test, is the student only struggling with the vocabulary section of the assessment. The t-chart labels would be question type-mistake made.
  2. Have students write a reflection on what type of answers they did wrong and why. The student can also reflect on what steps did they take to prepare for the test and are they happy with the results.
  3. Have students make corrections and then write out why the correct answer is correct and why the answer they chose was incorrect.

This strategy allows you as the teacher to see the patterns of strengths and weaknesses within your students’ abilities and knowledge, as well as allow for the students to identify this. In this, students can begin addressing the areas they may need to strengthen when it comes to test taking, whether that is strengthen their content knowledge, slowing down when testing or using a better study method.

Students Create Test Questions

This is a great strategy because it will allow you to see if you and your students are on the same page when it comes to content coming up on a test. Even our brightest students can perform poorly on a test if they do not study the right material. Students who typically struggle in school, I feel, really struggle with test because they feel like every test has been created to “trick them” and they typically do not prepare for the test by studying sufficiently the days before.

  • Before a test, instead of giving the students a study guide, have the students create a test of their own. Challenge the students to think about what were the important concepts that were the focus throughout the unit and let that information fuel the questions they create.
  • Students have to create the same types of questions that will be found on the test. For example, if you are going to have some multiple choice questions with an essay question at the end, then the students must create the same.

This would be a great opportunity to discuss with students the different types of questions stems teachers use and how the student will see the same stem over and over again. After the students have created the questions, have the students share with the class and discuss what questions “sound” like questions that “may” be on the test and what questions they would not find.

This strategy allows students to put on their teacher “hats” and focus in on the important material that needs to be studied for a test. It also allows the students to see the process the teacher goes through to create a test, which takes some of the mystery out of the question, “What is going to be on the test tomorrow?”

Consider trying out a new strategy this coming year that you haven’t in the past.Have a great start to the school year!

The Power of Silence

listen-upAs we’ve talked about before, building relationships is a very important part of every classroom’s culture. In building relationships, communication is very important. Teachers should seek to understand, before seeking to be understood.

Editors Note: This post is written by guest author Aubrey Trimble. The views expressed are her own.

I learned recently about the  power of silence within a conversation. I know that may sound a bit like an oxymoron; “The power of silence within a conversation,” but after working with at-risk students and students with special needs now for almost ten years,  I have learned to be comfortable with silence and allow the students more wait time to respond when we are having crucial conversations.

This was a hard lesson for me to learn due to the fact that I am chatty by nature. When I would have students come into my office to discuss issues they were having I found that I was processing/talking through the problem by myself and not involving the student within that important life lesson of talking through a problem, coming up with solutions and reflecting upon the result.

Like most of the important lessons I have learned throughout my teaching career, a student helped me find the power in silence. A freshman student, we will call Joe, was beginning to fail many of his academic classes and was transferred into the Academic Center for second semester. I had had his older brother the previous year and was familiar with the family background.  Joe came to the Academic Center angry to be in there, feeling as though he did not need any academic support, which in all truth, he did not. Joe was a bright student who was, unknowingly at the time, trying to go through the process of grieving his father who had passed suddenly the year before.   When Joe came into the AC I tried all my usual tricks of the trade; I asked about his family, classes, and talked about the importance of school. Throughout this whole process, Joe was stone cold, quiet and angry. He was scheduled into the Academic Center for his third hour period and most days ended up in my office for trying to sleep, talking back, etc. Every day he would come into my office I would talk at him, instilling upon him what I felt was important in terms of respecting his teachers, reaching his potential, etc. etc. etc. and Joe never spoke.

I went home every night thinking about Joe because I was at a loss of what to do and uncomfortable with the silence between us. So then I decided to try a new approach: be comfortable with the silence and allow Joe to have the control about where the conversation would go. The next day, Joe ended up in my office and instead of reading him the riot act I asked, “Do you need any help with your work?” and left it at that. The first day, no response. The second and the third, no response. Until one day he really opened up about the fact that he did really struggle with math and that he was not applying himself anywhere else because he is just angry and grieving; he actually felt guilty that he may be the reason for his dad’s untimely death. My usual conversations with students stayed, for me , in the “safe zone” of school work, behavior expectations, homework and the like, but Joe took me out of my comfort zone to talk about the root of his academic issues, which were not academic at all. He became a regular visitor in my office and eventually became quiet the chatty kiddo. When he was ready, we involved his guidance counselor to help him begin his journey through the grieving process and talking through some of the guilt he was feeling.

Most teachers, by nature, like to talk. Most teachers, by nature, want to feel in control of their students and classrooms. Most teachers, by nature, want what is best for their students. I found that, at times, what is best for my students is to allow myself to let go and have faith in where the conversation and student may take me.

Review, Don’t Cram!

cram We will be having a test over the Cell Cycle on Monday. Here is your study guide. Make sure to study!

The words, “We will have a test” and “Make sure to study!” can bring anxiety to even the most academically strong student. But for the struggling learner, they can be so overwhelming that the first response is just not to study. Or the student will study to the best of their knowledge and still be unsuccessful. Testing will most likely never end, but how we prepare students for classroom testing can. And how and when students start preparing needs to be well before the night before the test.

After our daily lesson, students are given time to ask questions on their homework, have a concept reviewed or preview an upcoming topic from one of their classes.To avoid the ever common slogan in previous years of, “I have no homework,” we implemented this past year #teamAC review activities.

These activities allow students to take information they have learned from one if their classes and review the material in various ways to help learn and retain what they have been taught. The activities are designed around lessons we have covered in class such as how to make flashcards or,  acronyms, creating  practice problems for themselves, using chapter reviews, rhyming and many more.  When students come to class and don’t have any homework questions, they take out their review sheets and pick an activity. For an incentive, each review part is assigned a point value. Once students reach 50 points, they can chose a reward such as a free iPod time or a treat as well as we provide them with a review activity certificate.
These straightforward review lessons have given students more ways to work with information. And the great part is they experience many different ways to manipulate the material, allowing them to learn for themselves how they best study. And all of the review Activities can be done at home too. Once students become stronger with the material, we move them to studying together with a partner as well as small group review sessions.

Consider the next time you tell your students, “Don’t forget to study!” that many students might not even know how to do that. Instead, consider ways to  integrate review tasks into your class to teach these skills.